Critics Grow Louder Over Mayor Larson’s Plan To Outsource Duluth’s Tourism Marketing; Councilors Weigh In

DULUTH, Minn. – Duluth city councilors are getting an earful and raising questions — one day after Mayor Emily Larson boldly announced plans to pass up longtime Visit Duluth for the city’s next tourism marketing contract worth nearly $2 million and instead choose Minneapolis-based Bellmont Partners and its partner, Lawrence & Schiller.

Mayor Larson told FOX 21 she stands by her plan and understands it’s uncomfortable for some, but she believes Bellmont is the right choice to promote Duluth to the next level.

(8/10/21: Mayor Larson Explains Reasoning Behind New Tourism Marketing Plans)

This comes after a new months-long application process for the marketing job that included two local finalists – Visit Duluth and the DECC, and three firms in greater Minnesota.

But critics are growingly unhappy the $1.8 million contract is planned to be spent outside the city — not only bypassing Visit Duluth, which has held the job since 1935, but also local advertising and marketing agencies from here at home.

Maarja Hewitt Pic

Maarja Hewitt, former Visit Duluth communications mngr.

The contract decision ultimately comes down to a vote by the city council on Monday.

Some of the councilors weighed in to FOX 21’s Dan Hanger Wednesday, as one of the well-known faces of Visit Duluth called out Mayor Larson.

Visit Duluth’s now-former communications manager, Maarja Hewitt, blasted Larson and her administration Wednesday in an email to city councilors that called the relationship between Visit Duluth and the city “ruined” forever — while

“I’m hoping as City Councilors, you will ask some tough questions and advocate to keep our tourism tax dollars local, to support local talent, and lift up the local passion and expertise that has fueled this industry for decades,” Hewitt said. “Visit Duluth made it clear to the City we were willing to make changes, listen to the City’s feedback, and work toward a new vision together. That fell on deaf ears.”

Hewitt ultimately said she couldn’t’ take the stress anymore, quit her job a few weeks ago and called Larson’s approach “a power move.”

Meanwhile, city councilors are all ears before a vote Monday on the Bellmont one-year contract for tourism marketing in 2022.

Joel Sipress 1

City Councilor Joel Sipress

“Councilors are hearing from a lot of people who are concerned generally with keeping our tax dollars in Duluth,” said Joel Sipress, a Duluth city councilor.  “My view is that we shouldn’t be sending this money out of town unless we have a very good reason to do so.”

Sipress said there are two issues: Should Visit Duluth continue to have a contract?  And if not, should the city be looking locally or outside the area?

“We have a lot of very, very successful advertising agencies who clearly have the skill and ability to do significant portions of the job of marketing Duluth’s tourism industry, and they of course are interested in having that opportunity to do that work. And that is a factor we have to consider,” Sipress added.

Derek Medved

City Councilor Derek Medved

Councilor Derek Medved commends Mayor Larson for using a “request for proposal” (RFP) process with the tourism tax revenue used to pay for the marketing contract and says that’s how it should have been all along.

“I think the process the mayor took was very appropriate — that’s a lot of money,” Medved said.

But he would like to make sure Visit Duluth has a chance to stay put and fix whatever Larson feels is broken before outsourcing the funds.

“I believe Visit Duluth was served divorce papers a little bit too soon. Were we not communicating with them appropriately, did we not give them a lot of areas to improve in, did they get concerns from us,” Medved questioned.  “Once these funds go outside our city, they’re benefiting other local vendors, and I think the ripple effect … can affect our local economy greatly.”


City Councilor Arik Forsman

Meanwhile Councilor Arik Forsman, who was part of the interview process of finalists for the job, said he fully understands the criticism of local dollars potentially leaving the city, but he believes — overall — the process is playing out as it should.

“The council is there to be that check and a balance. We have different levels of government in our strong-mayor system. But ultimately, I think the decision the council will have to make is was the RFP a valid one, were we following purchasing requirements, and is this the right move,” Forsman said. “And I understand wide spectrums of opinion. I’ve had my own thoughts on that, but at the end of the day I do believe it was a fair, open and competitive process.”

Larson has offered Visit Duluth a much smaller $400,000 contract for next year to handle convention coordination and the visitor’s center.   Visit Duluth President Anna Tanski said Tuesday the board is weighing their options and more details are expected to be released during a virtual video call at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, which the media is invited to.